Cacao is a major food crop for Guatemalan people today; cacao was a major food crop for indigenous Maya people a thousand years ago also. Cacao got stuck with the modern name cocoa so cocoa powder is what is sold in supermarkets in the USA by Hersheys and all the other brands. But the proper original name is cacao.

Although there are some areas of Guatemala where cacao is common, it can be grown almost anywhere that you provide some shade and enough moisture. I originally had about eight plants outside in my garden and about the same number inside my house at an elevation of about 1300 meters in chilly Guatemala City. However in two years the tallest and most robust of my seedlings is still only about 1 meter tall, and most are less than that. A few are only 40 cm tall, and that is after two years. You quickly learn that some areas of the garden the plants grow slowing; ones in pots in deep shade most of the day grew the best so far. But we learned that they did not like to be transplanted from the pot to the garden soil.

Now, three years later (so the plants are over 5 years old), the tallest of my cacao “trees” is still bush-sized, at less than 3 meters. But being in the middle of the city, and with lots of tall trees, plus the shade of a 6-level house, the cacao plants don’t get quite enough sun. Due to the colder weather at this altitude, they only bloom about once every two or three years. And the winds and rain usually knock off the flowers before they can turn into pods. But one year we did get pods (despite the unlikely presence of the midges which are normally expected to pollinate cacao; I doubt if these midges are common in the middle of a city where I have about the only cacao for several kilometers around).

pataxte fruit pod
Pataxte fruit pod, Theobroma bicolor

There is a Theobroma cacao tree inside the museum of Copan Ruinas village, Honduras, that flowers and somehow even fruits (how the flowers of a single tree are fertilized I will have to leave to a botanist).

In the last several years pre-Columbian Maya cacao has become a popular topic, after all, most of us buy cocoa in the supermarket and drink milk chocolate and enjoy chocolate candy. Hundreds of books exist on chocolate and many ethnobotanical monographs on cacao and chocolate have been published in the last few years. We list some of the better books and articles in our bibliography on cacao, cocoa, and chocolate.

cacao_effigy_vessels
Cacao effigy vessels from a registered collection, La Ruta Maya, photograph by Nicholas Hellmuth.

Cacao in Maya archaeology: cacao seeds in Tikal Burial 196.

My first encounter with Maya cacao was in 1965, at Tikal. At age 19, while a student at Harvard, working at Tikal twelve months for the University of Pennsylvania, I discovered a polychrome painted Maya vessel filled with food remains. The pot was about half filled with crusted remains of food; in the crust were the hollow shapes of what had once been a bean-like seed.
Since this was in 1965, and today it is over half a century later, I don’t exactly have my field notes handy. But at age 19 I naively assumed these were frijoles (beans) in the pot. As I look back in my memory, I now question whether the “beans” were probably cacao. To tell for sure would require finding the University of Pennsylvania records.

I tended to save the contents of any artifact I felt needed more study; since I was

This tomb is known popularly as the Tomb of the Jade Jaguar.

I am still studying Maya cacao (and jaguars) after all these decades.

growing cacao plant
This is a young growing cacao plant we had at the FLAAR office.

During the years that FLAAR organized educational field trips (1970’s-early 1990’s) to help interested people learn about Maya culture, we often came into contact with cacao trees in the area of the Rio de la Pasion and Rio Usumacinta. But the major areas for cacao plantations are in Alta Verapaz area and across the other side of the mountains, in the piedmont area between the Mexican border of Chiapas and Escuintla. Chocola and Takalik Abaj are two out of hundreds of fincas where you can easily find cacao groves today in the piedmont area.

Although Soconusco (Chiapas, but directly on the border with the same eco-system of Guatemala) and Tabasco (Mexico) are the areas of cacao production which are mentioned in most books and articles, we have found other areas of cacao production in Guatemala which do not seem to be known to the authors of peer-reviewed journals and books published by universities. This is the difference between writing books on chocolate at your university, and writing about chocolate living in Guatemala and being able to get to know remote areas of this actually rather large country.

Since there are already many ethnobotanists, archaeologists, and iconographers already studying cacao, where FLAAR can also assist to provide something special, namely to utilize our experience with advanced digital photography to obtain better than average photographic records of cacao. We then test and evaluate different kinds of wide-format inkjet printers to print large-sized photographs. This kind of photograph can be used in museums or for general photo exhibits.

Spuhl Virtu RS Printing Samples Cacao
Testing a Spuhl Virtu RS 35 UV-curable combo flatbed inkjet printer in Switzerland with photographs of cacao fruit, Alta Verapaz area. FLAAR is testing and evaluating digital printers to learn which printers would be most practical to print educational signage and displays for future museums. These photographs can be displayed at large size because they were taken with a 22-megapixel digital camera: see www.digital-photography.org for more information.

LexJet Legend UV Printer Printing Samples Cacao
Here we are testing photographs of cacao and Spanish colonial architecture on a hybrid style UV-curable flatbed inkjet printer in Florida, at the demo room of DEC (Lexjet) on a Legend 72HUV printer.

Achiote (Annatto) and vanilla are sometimes grown in the same areas as cacao.

Achiote, Bixa orellana, annatto, is a major food crop of the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala. Most of the same villages that have cacao orchards in the house lots also have achiote. This is because the ancient Maya used achiote powder to dye their cacao red. I have noticed two different kinds of achiote: that grown in Chisec area of Alta Verapaz and that nearer the ruins of Cancuen.

I have also found vanilla plants in some of the village orchards of Alta Verapaz. Although vanilla is best known from the El Tajin area of Veracruz, Mexico, and Tabasco, you can find vanilla being grown in many lowland areas of Guatemala and also in higher elevations of Alta Verapaz.

Cacao as a sacred drink for ritual use among the ancient Maya.
Many pre-Columbian polychrome Maya vases have hieroglyphic inscriptions that indicate these fired clay pots were used to hold cacao drink. The importance of cacao as a special drink is emphasized by the presence of actual clay effigy containers in the size and shape of a cacao pod. I thank the La Ruta Maya Foundation for facilitating our photography of three such cacao vessels (we show one here). We are preparing a longer and more detailed report on cacao, as well as on the digital camera and lighting equipment used in this photography.

Cacao flavoring of the pre-Columbian Maya and Aztecs.
In recent correspondence with Michael Coe, he suggested that since FLAAR has botanists in-house on staff resident in Guatemala, that we should gather more local information on the different Post Classic Aztec and Maya flavorings for cacao. So I began this long-range ethnobotany project in late 2008. Today, in late 2014, we are well advanced in knowledge of the diverse plants which were mixed with cacao a thousand years ago.

Diverse species of cacao other than Theobroma cacao.
Cacao pods (pochas in local Guatemalan Spanish) come in every imaginable size, color, and shape: fat, thin, long, knobby, smooth; green, yellow, red, orange. Pods of pataxte, Theobroma bicolor, have a distinctive pattern, especially when the pod is dried out. Yet I have seen the identical pattern on fresh pods in Alta Verapaz on a tree that I am sure is Theobroma cacao.

My interest in size, shape, and color of the pods is because most archaeological, iconographic, and epigraphic discussions of cacao simply talk about cacao or chocolate. This is precisely how I spoke about this tree, fruit and drink for decades: until I was face to face with my first pataxte tree (at Takalik Abaj archaeological park many years ago). This was as different from a “cacao” tree as night is from day or winter is from spring. So that summer I began to learn about pataxte and the next year it was possible to find several pataxte trees near where one of the FLAAR photography assistants grew up, in an area near the Mexican border. There will be articles and discussions about the ethnobotany of pataxte in FLAAR Reports upcoming for the next several years as we assemble a world-class photo archive of cacao.

This interest in size and shape of the pods is of additional importance to archaeologists and botanists because the pods on pre-Columbian effigy vessels clearly are depicting different species or at least sub-species of cacao. But these differences are seldom, if ever, identified in the captions. Indeed I am not convinced that all botanists would accept all the pods on pre-Columbian effigy containers to really be cacao anyway. There are several other fruits that are the same size and shape as a cacao pod (but true, not all of these fruit from the trunk as does Theobroma cacao). I gave a lecture to anthropology students and faculty at Tulane University a few years ago about all the native pods in Guatemala which are of similar size and ridged shape as cacao and pataxte pods.

I pointed out to the botanists working at FLAAR that it is safest to be neutral about identifying any “pod” in Maya art as Theobroma cacao until it is clear that the pod is an acceptable size and shape for common cacao.
About a month later Mirtha Cano sent me a JPEG that illustrated cacao de ardilla (cacao of squirrels) Herrania purpurea (Pittier) R.E. Schult. This same cacao is known (in Costa Rica) as cacao de mico and cacao de Monte (the Malvaceae.info web site index). But so far we have not found this cacao species in Guatemala, though we are looking.

The point is that cacao is not just one fruit, it is a diverse range of fruits and trees with different sizes and shapes and decorations on the pods.

We list some of the better books and articles in our bibliography on cacao, cocoa, and chocolate.

Most recently updated September 9, 2014.
First posted June 25, 2008. Updated January 26, 2009. More photographs added May 25, 2010.

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